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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington

HARDGATE, or as it was anciently named, Herdgate, runs from the Custom Stone to the North-East Port where the town’s gate stood, and forms part of the great post road from Edinburgh to London. About Hardgate, like other localities in Haddington, much can be written of events, houses, and persons now almost forgotten, which will be soon lost in oblivion to a new and rising generation. Johnnie Cockburn, a merchant of small-wares, occupied the old angular tenement at the south-east end of Hardgate Street. The old Custom Stone, a large square whinstone boulder, now placed by the side of the mill lade in the East Haugh, stood at the side of his house. The tacksman of the customs sat on it with his cronies, and no doubt many a good “crack” has taken place on it. It is narrated that Johnnie’s father was drowned out of his house by the great flood of October 1775—his shop being several steps down, was filled with water from floor to ceiling. Johnnie’s spouse continued the shop for many years after his death. The schoolboys of the day annoyed her a good deal by blowing pab into her windows, and playing all sorts of tricks on her, which roused her temper not a little. The old house has been rebuilt, and is now occupied by Mr Gibson, victual-dealer; opposite this house was an old tenement which formerly belonged to the Knights Templar of St John.

Some old Haddington folks will still recollect the gallant 426 regiment, after their return* from Waterloo on their march to Edinburgh Castle, passing round the corner into the High Street, their sadly thinned ranks receiving a hearty cheer and welcome. Some may also remember the waggons containing the new silver coinage passing through the town in 1818 on their way from London to Edinburgh. The post office was for many years at the Custom Stone, before it was removed to the High Street, in 1829 or 1830.

A traditional story connected with the French occupation and siege of Haddington in 1548, is handed down. One “Bill” or “Wull” Cochrane, a baxter or baker in Hardgate Street, was busy in his bakehouse with his batch of bread on the morning of the attack, when he was forcibly interrupted by two Frenchmen, who seized him, and demanded his bread. Bill was not to be so easily done, but, with the aid of his men, fell on the Frenchmen with his rowing-pins, and killed them both. Tradition further says that he buried the bodies in his garden behind. Certain it is that sixty or seventy years ago, the bones of two bodies were dug up in the same garden, which, along with the houses, is now the property of, and occupied by Mrs Knox.

The King’s Arms Inn, opposite the George Inn stables, was a famous house in its day. Occupied first by Mr Henry Laidlaw, and afterwards by Mr Whitehead, it was one of the best inns in Haddington. A farmers’ club, frequented on Fridays by many of the old respectable farmers of the county, was long held in it, and well known as “Whitehead’s Club.” The Dunbar and Haddington regular coaches to Edinburgh, begun first in 1804 by Henry Laidlaw, started from the King’s Arms up to 1828. Previous to Laidlaw’s coaches, the “Fly” started from the Blue Bell to Edinburgh; went as far as.Birsley Brae, where it was met by a coach from Edinburgh, and exchanged passengers from Haddington. The “Fly” occupied the best part of a day in travelling.

The George Inn stables, opposite the King’s Arms, have been long in existence in Hardgate, and have seen many owners and occupants—viz., Sang, Marjoribanks, Blackwell, M'Donald, and others. Burley’s Wa’s, a narrow lane which runs from Kilpair Street to Hardgate, has been a well-known landmark for all Haddingtonians in all ages, both at home and abroad.

Next the King’s Arms was many years ago an old established dye-work, carried on by Robert and John Davie, and their forbears. Dyeing seems to have been a large trade in Haddington at one time. There were other two dye-works, besides Messrs Davie’s, in Hardgate, viz., that of Thomas Ramsay, where the late William Paterson’s premises are, and one near the North-East Port, long occupied by Sandie Laurie, and latterly by John Cochrane. Maud or madder was at one time extensively grown at Aberlady and other places for the use of the Haddington dyers and dyesters. A deal of worsted yarn was dyed blue and manufactured into stockings and cloth by the numerous weavers at that time in town and country. The dyers used to dry their yarns, &c. on tenters at Tenterfield.

The late Hardgate Independent Chapel, on the west side of the street, was built under the auspices of the Haldanes. It was long a well-frequented place of worship by the Congregationalists. Mr James Hill, their first minister, was placed in 1804. Mr William Ritchie, a very worthy man, and engaged in every good work, was placed in 1813; Dr Russel, afterwards of Dundee, in 1833 5 Mr J. D. Thomson, in 1841; and others afterwards were ministers there.

The Gowl (windy) Close, leading down from Hardgate to the Tyne, is a place of great antiquity. In the Haddington war and siege time it was often the scene of many a hot fray betwixt the French and English on their way along the Tyne to the Sands. There was once a gate in it which no doubt was often forced by opposing bands. The premises on the north side of the Gowl Close, now occupied by Mr Main, draper, were long the manse of the Rev. Robert Scott, minister of the second charge of Haddington, and his predecessors. He removed from it to the present manse in Sidegate in 1812. The old manse was sold by public roup to Mr Thos. Nicol, merchant. While the sale was going on, word was brought to Mr Thomas Nicol, that he was the fortunate drawer of a share in a lottery ticket, which encouraged him to increase his bidding. The property afterwards passed into the hands of the late Mr John Gray, long town’s treasurer.

The flesh-market was erected by the town in 1804 from a plan by Mr James Burn, a famous Haddington architect in his day. It cost ^1500. The old flesh-market was formerly in Newton Port. The foundation stone of the new building was laid by the Right Hon. Francis, Lord Elcho, on which occasion his lordship, attended by the magistrates, and a great number of brethren belonging to St John’s Masonic Lodge, walked from the lodge to the market in procession, attended by the band of the old Haddington volunteers. The flesh-market was long well filled with sale stalls; now it is entirely deserted. The fleshers, along with the brewsters and baxters of Haddington, seem to have been an important body of traders long ago. We find, by an order of the Privy Council, that, on 23d September 1568, “ They are charged to carrie forwart, with baken bread, brewed aile, and flesche, to furnish the camp by and at the siege of Dunbar Castle at competent pryces, under the payne to be repute assistaries of the rebellis, and charging the provost and baillizes of Haddingtoun to see the said breid, aile, and flesche furnished to said camp, as thai will answer upon their obedience and under the pain aforesaid.”

Connected with the fleshers, we find in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal, of date 19th Sept. 1804, the following notice:—“There are now living in Haddington, who are respectable fleshers in that place, two brothers of the name of Nisbet—viz., Francis and Alexander. There is such a prevailing likeness between these men that it requires the nicest eye and a length of intimacy to draw a distinction. The one is so complete a model of the other that they are known individually only to a few. A gentleman, who has lived in Haddington several years, has had frequent intercourse with these men in the way of business, but he never could discover any dissimilitude whereby they could be known.” There were several families of the name of Nisbet, Thomson, &c., at that time in Haddington, all fleshers.

Long ago there was an officer appointed by the magistrates and council to inspect the hides and skins of the cattle and sheep killed, who fined the fleshers for cutting them when taking them off, an appointment originating probably with the tanners of the town. Robert Hislop was the last inspector. The magistrates also fined the fleshers for blowing up veal and lamb. Provost Hislop was particularly severe in this matter, and in fining them denounced them for blowing their  vile sophisticated breath into meat to be eaten by ladies and gentlemen.” Next the flesh-market was the oldest public-house in Haddington, long called the White Swan, and for many years occupied by Mrs Telford, a worthy woman, who died at an extreme old age. Above the sign of the Swan were the lines—

As swans do like the water clear,
Step in here and drink good beer.

Willie Nisbet (“Stitches”) was owner and occupant after Mrs Telford. Many a jovial meeting in old corporation and later times was held in Mrs Telford’s and Willie Nisbet's. This ancient hostelry was deprived of the license by the magistrates, on the ground that its discontinuance was for “the good of the community.”

The Hospital Close runs down from Hardgate to the Tyne, where stepping-stones were laid across the river to Gimmers Mills before the bridge was built. It was called the Hospital Close from there being at one time an hospital in it for sick people. The old-established tannery and skinnery which belonged to Mr Andrew Pringle, his father, and predecessors, was carried on extensively for many years, and is still in existence in the Hospital Close. Andrew Pringle, sen,, was killed by lightning in 1780 in this close. Another tanyard in Hardgate was long carried on by Mr Archibald Pringle, who died in 1782, and afterwards by his successor, James. Opposite Pringle’s tanyards, there stood at one time an old chapel, or religious house. A new tenement was built on the site of it by Mr Andrew Pringle, and is now the property of Mrs Jamieson. A quantity of human bones were found in clearing away the rubbish for the new foundations.

We come now to the most ancient and important old building in Hardgate, viz., Bothwell’s House, or Castle. It belonged to the well-known and notorious Earl of Bothwell, who figures so largely in old Scotch history. It was, no doubt, occupied by him and his retinue on many occasions, and it is very probable that Queen Mary, in her progress to and from Dunbar Castle, rested there. There is not much architectural beauty in the building, but it has all the usual points common to the baronial houses of the age. The armorial bearings seem to have been next the street, but are now entirely defaced. It is likely the grounds extended along the river side north and south, and included the space where now stands Mr George Richardson’s house, which is very appropriately named Bothwell Bank. In Bothwell Castle Miss Jenny Halyburton kept for many years a young ladies* school. The old kitchen was down some steps next the Tyne, and in it Miss Jenny confined those of her scholars who were rebellious, to whom it was by all accounts a place of fear and dread. We find from history that Cockburn of Ormiston, who was charged with the conveyance of 4000 crowns for the use of the English at Haddington, was waylaid by the Earl of Bothwell, who wounded him, and carried off the money. Sadler mentions that the Earls of Arran and Moray went immediately with 200 horse and 100 footmen, with two pieces of artillery, to the Earl of Bothwell's house in Haddington, where he resided, to apprehend him; but Bothwell fled down the Gowl Close to the Tyne, and keeping along the bed of the river, stole into the house of Cockburn of Sandybed by a back door, and, changing clothes with the turnspit, performed the duty for some days till he had an opportunity to escape. Bothwell in gratitude gave Cockburn and his heirs a perpetual ground annual of 4 bolls of wheat, 4 bolls of barley, and 4 bolls of oats out of his lands of Mainshill. George Cockburn of Sandybed sold his property to John Buchan, Esq., of Letham. It is supposed Sandybed is the present house and lands of Millfield, long occupied by Mr Thomas Dods. Miss Haldane’s property of the Cottage, near the West Port, once belonged to the Cockburns of Sandybed, who, succeeding to the property of Gleneagles, in Perthshire, changed their name to Haldane.

In the front of an old house farther north from Bothwell Castle, there is a sign of a candlemaker in a stone lintel, with the date 1599 on it, and six candles hung from a stick. Sandie Laurie’s dyework was behind this house, on the banks of the Tyne. Next this house is the porthouse, which at one time belonged to John Craw, Esq., of Gladshot, writer in Haddington. Mr Craw had a great number of daughters, and it got the name of the “Craws nest.” It was afterwards long occupied by Mr Peter Forrest, late tenant of Northrig. Above the entrance door the words, "Meliora semper cogita, 1641,” are inscribed. A house opposite was long occupied by Dr Robert Somerville, long a famous surgeon in Haddington, and author of the Agricultural Survey of East Lothian.

The last house in the street on the west side was long possessed by John Lawrie and his spouse, Margaret Hunter. John was a brother of Sir Peter Lawrie, late Lord Mayor of London. He was an old East Indian veteran, and in his day saw a deal of service and hard fighting, especially at the taking of Seringapatam, and capture and death of Tipoo Sahib in 1799. He used to delight his youthful listeners with the exploits of the British under the command of General Baird, afterwards Sir David Baird, Bart., and brother to Robert Baird, Esq., of Newbyth.

The Spout Well, which came down from the Lady’s Well Spring at Flora Bank, ran for many years out of a stone pipe in the wall of the Porthouse garden. William Smith, the Hardgate poet, celebrated it in a volume of verses he published. The Spout Well is now dry. The north-east gate, part of the old town wall of Haddington, which extended down to the Tyne, stood at this extremity of the burgh. It was taken down about a hundred and twenty years ago.

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